On Monday, He was convicted of “illegal medical practice,” sentenced to three years in prison and fined about $430,000, according to the news agency Xinhua. He pleaded guilty, along with two collaborators, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, who also received prison sentences and fines.
The court found the three were not qualified to work as doctors and violated China’s regulations with experiments that were “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain” and “disrupted medical order.” The court also found that He forged documents related to the ethical review of his experiment.
The judicial proceedings were not public, and outside experts said it is hard to know what to make of the punishment without the release of the full investigative report or extensive knowledge of Chinese law and the conditions under which He will be incarcerated.
Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley who co-invented CRISPR, the gene editing technology that He utilized, has been outspoken in condemning the experiments and has repeatedly said CRISPR is not ready to be used for reproductive purposes.
“When I saw the announcement from Dr. He, initially, one of my very early thoughts was, ‘Gosh, I wonder if this is just the first of multiple such announcements that will start to be made by fertility clinics in various countries,’" Doudna recalled Monday. “That hasn’t happened — and I think that is good.”
R. Alta Charo, a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, was among a small group of experts who had dinner with He the night before he unveiled his controversial research in Hong Kong in November 2018.
“He Jiankui is an example of somebody who fundamentally didn’t understand, or didn’t want to recognize, what have become international norms around responsible research,” Charo said. “My impression is he allowed his personal ambition to completely cloud rational thinking and judgment.”
Closely monitoring the health of the gene-edited children will be critical to ensure that any problems potentially introduced by the technology are caught early, she said. But doing so in a way that respects the autonomy and privacy of them and their families will be equally important, she added — to prevent turning them into a spectacle or oddity.
Scientists have been testing an array of powerful biotechnology tools to fix genetic diseases in adults. There is tremendous excitement about the possibility of fixing genes that cause serious disease, and the first U.S. patients were treated with CRISPR this year.
But scientists have long drawn a clear moral line between curing genetic diseases in adults and editing and implanting human embryos, which raises the specter of “designer babies.” Those changes and any unanticipated ones could be inherited by future generations — in essence altering the human species.
He’s experiment was also criticized because it appeared to have failed to meet basic ethical principles intended to protect people who participate in research. Even scientists who maintain that gene editing may one day be safely used to create babies free from lethal diseases noted that because of the many safe ways to prevent the transmission of HIV, there is no reason to edit the genomes of healthy babies.
He, a former associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology, had been under investigation in China, but the announcement of his sentence was a surprise. Several international scientific bodies, including the World Health Organization, have been holding meetings over the past year to create standards and a framework for oversight of the fast-moving science.
A Russian scientist, Denis Rebrikov, created a stir this summer when he said he planned to create gene-edited babies. But Rebrikov later told the journal Nature that he would not proceed without government approval. Charo cited Rebrikov’s change of plans as a “good sign” that the efforts to move toward a coordinated global framework will deter others.
The entire He episode has focused questions on whether and how scientists should take action if they learn about experiments that raise deep ethical questions. Several U.S. universities have looked into whether scientists who knew about He’s experiment were involved in the research.
“The fact that the individual at the center of the story has been punished for his role in it should not distract us from examining what supporting roles were played by others, particularly in the international scientific community and also the environment that shaped and encouraged him to push the limits,” said Benjamin Hurlbut, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.
Stanford University cleared its scientists, including He’s former postdoctoral adviser, Stephen Quake, finding that Quake and others did not participate in the research and had expressed “serious concerns to Dr. He about his work.” A Rice University spokesman said an investigation continues into bioengineering professor Michael Deem, He’s former academic adviser. Deem was listed as a co-author on a paper called “Birth of Twins After Genome Editing for HIV Resistance,” submitted to scientific journals, according to MIT Technology Review.